Cre­ative Assem­bly gets it right again

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Elves, as far as the eye can see

Fromthe time that Cre­ative Assem­bly re­leased Rome II, it seemed like the de­vel­oper had lost its way. Each To­tal War game (we’re pre­tend­ing that Storm­rise never ex­isted, and the Sonic games don’t count) had built on the one be­fore it, adding more com­plex­ity, more fea­tures, and a deeper strate­gic and tac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Rome II, though, was a tech­ni­cal and to be hon­est, a strate­gic mess. Maybe there were too many changes to the for­mula, too fast, but for most long-term fans, it was a hard ti­tle to come back from.

Warhammer, based on the fran­chise of the same name from Games Work­shop, seemed like a great idea, and once again, it seemed as though Cre­ative couldn’t fail to de­liver an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but – de­spite early pos­i­tive cov­er­age – it again dis­ap­pointed. It just seemed too big, too ex­pan­sive, lack­ing the aim and fo­cus of ear­lier games, fo­cus­ing in­stead on gee-whiz units and mon­sters, and an overly an­i­mated strate­gic map.

But someone at Cre­ative was pay­ing at­ten­tion. In Warhammer II, each mis­step of the pre­vi­ous game seems to have been ac­tively ad­dressed. The world you’re fight­ing over is big, but not so much so that the scope over­whelms. Battles once again seem more firmly rooted in their place on the strate­gic map, and the cam­paign is held to­gether by a much tighter nar­ra­tive that gives you much more of a rea­son to keep play­ing to­wards the endgame other than merely get­ting big­ger and not be­ing stomped by Chaos.

Warhammer II fo­cuses in on four new playable races, with all the playable races from the first game mak­ing an ap­pear­ance as pos­si­ble en­e­mies or al­lies. The High Elves are ar­guably the most ‘his­tor­i­cal’ of the races – their fo­cus on spear- armed in­fantry and steady lines of archers makes them feel sim­i­lar to many me­dieval armies. Their rather pointier, kinkier cousins, the Dark Elves, are gen­er­ally more mur­der­ous, with early units like ar­moured-bikini­wear­ing Witch Elves de­liv­er­ing a lot of char­ac­ter. Then you’ve got the Lizard­men, who, de­spite be­ing gi­ant two-legged rep­tiles with dreams of dom­i­na­tion, bor­row a lot from Aztec and Mayan cul­tures in terms of look and iconog­ra­phy. Oh, and they’re lead by gi­ant, flat, float­ing arch-mage frogs, so there’s that, too.

Fi­nally, there are the Skaven, a race that no one be­lieves ac­tu­ally ex­ists, as they are largely sub­ter­ranean/ very far away. These are ar­cane rat­men, fo­cus­ing on har­ness­ing the power of raw chaos to power mas­sive war-en­gines, cre­ate gi­ant mu­tant crea­tures, and gen­er­ally be five kinds of chit­ter­ing, swarm­ing evil.

But for the first part of the game, you’re likely only go­ing to be fac­ing your own peo­ple, as you weld your na­tion of elves, skinks, or ver­min into a force to be reck­oned with. You can sim­ply in­vade your neigh­bours (pol­i­tics in Warhammer is noth­ing if not blunt),

he­roes and lords are spec­tac­u­larly use­ful, but there are units that can counter or kill them

but you can also use diplo­macy to form a Fed­er­a­tion – the ef­fect is the same, but you feel much bet­ter about it. In Warhammer, this hap­pened too quickly, mak­ing your ex­pan­sion seem out of con­trol, but the pac­ing of when your friends will like you enough to wear your colours in Warhammer II feels much more sat­is­fy­ing.

More sat­is­fy­ing still is the game’s plot, which sees ev­ery­one work­ing to­ward start­ing and com­plet­ing five rit­u­als to con­trol the Great Vor­tex, a swirling mag­i­cal tor­nado that keeps too much chaos from flood­ing the world. Each of the rit­u­als takes cer­tain re­sources to be­gin, takes ten turns to com­plete, and will ab­so­lutely draw the ire of lo­cal chaos armies. But each also brings ever-build­ing bonuses to your peo­ple. It’s nice to have a goal that isn’t just world dom­i­na­tion, and while in­vad­ing other fac­tions to dis­rupt their own mys­ti­cal ef­forts is per­fectly valid, so is sim­ply fo­cus­ing on de­fence.

And wip­ing out pi­rate fac­tions, ‘cause those guys are just big jerks.

The im­proved pac­ing ex­tends to the ever-spec­tac­u­lar tac­ti­cal battles, too. Clashes be­tween units have a weight to them now, mean­ing you can spend less time watch­ing units break, and more time mak­ing sure you’re mov­ing your units where they need to be – this lets you build up your own tac­ti­cal doc­trine pretty eas­ily, with­out the game pun­ish­ing you for try­ing to be a lit­tle cre­ative. He­roes and Lords are spec­tac­u­larly use­ful, but there are units that can counter and even wound or kill them, and some of the mon­strous units are down­right scary.

Warhammer II’s not per­fect – au­tore­solv­ing battles can still be a ran­dom crap-shoot, and our code has crashed a cou­ple of times, but I’ve not felt so in­vested in a To­tal War cam­paign in years, pos­si­bly not since my own prob­lem­atic fave, Napoleon. The game­play is rich, re­ward­ing, and full of in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to make friends and an­ni­hi­late en­tire peo­ples. It looks bet­ter than ever, too, and the sound­track­ing is def­i­nitely praise­wor­thy, sound­ing like some­thing you’d ex­pect from The Lord of the Rings.

Like my Lord Tyrion re­turn­ing from the con­quest of Ti­ra­noc, To­tal War is back, and tri­umphant.


The LotR de­mas­ter is look­ing pretty good

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